Everything you need to know about the dichotomy of control

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

So, famously, begins Epictetus’ Enchiridion, his handbook of Stoic practice. This is, of course, the same sentiment expressed by the 20th century Christian Serenity Prayer, used for instance by a number of 12-step organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

(Which, as I point out in my book, How to Be a Stoic, appears more than once in Kurt Vonnegut’s disturbing Slaughterhouse Five.)

The sentiment is found in a number of other traditions as well. Solomon ibn Gabirol, an eleventh-century Jewish philosopher, for example, expressed it this way: “And they said: at the head of all understanding — is realizing what is and what cannot be, and the consoling of what is not in our power to change.”

Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist scholar, similarly wrote: “If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes / What reason is there for dejection? / And if there is no help for it / What use is there in being glum?”

Yet, modern Stoics and non-Stoic alike are often confused by the concept of the dichotomy of control. Our critics tend to interpret it as an invitation to quietism, to just endure whatever happens while sporting the mythical stiff upper lip. They are completely wrong, that is definitely not what Epictetus and Zeno (who originated the concept) meant, as I’ll explain (once more) in a minute.

But even some of our own seem to have trouble with it. Here is Bill Irvine’s famous (and highly controversial) attempt to “update” the dichotomy to a trichotomy, in his A Guide to the Good Life:

“The problem with [Epictetus’] statement of the dichotomy is that the phrase ‘some things aren’t up to us’ is ambiguous: it can be understood to mean either ‘There are things over which we have no control at all’ or to mean ‘There are things over which we don’t have complete control.’ … Stated in this way, the dichotomy is a false dichotomy, since it ignores the existence of things over which we have some but not complete control. … This suggests that we should understand the phrase ‘some things aren’t up to us’ in [a different] way: we should take it to mean that there are things over which we don’t have complete control. … This in turn suggests the possibility of restating Epictetus’ dichotomy of control as a trichotomy.” (pp. 87-88)

To illustrate, Bill imagines the example of a tennis player who has managed to shift his attention from the obvious external goal of winning the match to the internal one of playing at his best and accepting the outcome with equanimity:

“[the tennis player] will be careful to set internal rather than external goals. Thus, his goal in playing tennis will not be to win a match (something external, over which he has only partial control) but to play to the best of his ability in the match (something internal, over which he has complete control). By choosing this goal, he will spare himself frustration or disappointment should he lose the match: Since it was not his goal to win the match, he will not have failed to attain his goal, as long as he played his best. His tranquility will not be disrupted.” (p. 94)

This is actually very similar to what Cicero has Cato say in book III of De Finibus, using this time the example of an archer:

“if a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate End,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (III.22)

Notice that Cicero’s archer behaves exactly like Irvine’s tennis player: they both internalize their goals. Cicero is also very revealing when he says that the Chief Good for the archer is to be a virtuous archer, i.e., to practice archery with arete, or excellence (the same word used by the Greeks to indicate moral virtue). The actual outcome, then, is referred to with the delightful phrase of being “chosen but not desired.”

I have to admit that when I first read Irvine I thought his move from a dichotomy to a trichotomy of control was a good example of updating ancient to modern Stoicism. But then Don Robertson straightened me out on the Facebook Stoicism page: he pointed out that everything we attempt to do can be broken down into two components: the part that is entirely up to us (“opinion, motivation, desire, aversion”) and one that is not up to us, although it can be influenced by us (“our body, our property, reputation, office”). He added that, should one go down Irvine’s road, one would eviscerate the Stoic concept and be left with a fairly banal observation about how the world works.

Don’s take makes more sense, come to think of it, also because it is hard to believe that the Stoics, who were renowned for their contributions to logic, would trip over a simple false dichotomy, as Irvine suggests. Put another way, it’s a bit difficult to conceive that Epictetus did not realize that “our body, our property, reputation, office” cannot be influenced by our choices and actions.

So I came up with what I think is a novel, and hopefully useful, way to conceive of the dichotomy of control, which also makes it crystal clear why it is not, in fact, a trichotomy: vector analysis!

I know, I know, your eyes are rolling while your memory stretches back to those boring lessons about basic math and physics you had to endure in high school. But bear with me for a minute, it will be worth it, I promise.

This first diagram shows the basic idea:

The horizontal vector visually represents what is under your control. The vertical vector is everything else, i.e., the stuff you don’t control at all. In the case of the archer, the first vector summarizes the archer’s determination, practice, focus, care of the bow and arrow, and choice of the moment at which to let the arrow go. The second vector, by contrast, captures the things the archer has absolutely no control over, including the fact that his target may move (enemy soldiers don’t usually just stand there!), sudden gusts of wind, and so forth.

The combination of these two factors yields the differently colored vector in the diagram, representing the actual outcome. As you can see, the outcome is the combinatorial of the archer’s efforts (what is up to him) and the externals (what is not up to him).

However, notice also the solid block limiting the range of the horizontal vector, which represents an absolute limit to what is under the control of the archer. Without that, we could imagine that all one needs to do is to keep increasing the length of the horizontal vector (i.e., one’s own efforts) to eventually dwarf the contribution of the external factors, thus always achieving one’s objectives.

That, of course, would be Secret-type wishful thinking, incompatible with the way the world works, and the Stoic topos of physics is there to tell us that that’s impossible.

Notice also that there is no equivalent block on the vertical vector, meaning that external forces, for all effective purposes, can (and often will) dwarf your efforts no matter what. One way to conceptualize this is to say that the universal web of cause-effect is gigantic, and our actions are only a tiny fraction of it.

Turn now to the second diagram:

It presents a scenario where your efforts happen to be well aligned with external forces, and as a result, you do achieve your “chosen” (but, remember, not to be desired!) goal. (Note that the three vectors are actually coincident, they are drawn slightly apart for clarity’s sake.)

Finally, the third diagram:

This is an extreme case where your efforts are entirely futile, because they are dwarfed by the size of the externals. Here, as a Stoic, you accept the outcome with equanimity, reminding yourself that, in the words of Epictetus, you always set yourself up to do two things:

“When you’re about to embark on any action, remind yourself what kind of action it is. If you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you. And you’ll thus undertake the action in a surer manner if you say to yourself at the outset, ‘I want to take a bath and ensure at the same time that my choice remains in harmony with nature.’” (Enchiridion 4)

To remain in harmony with nature means to choose, but not to desire, certain outcomes. It means that you cultivate an attitude of equanimity toward what happens to you. That is the way of the Stoic, the path to ataraxia.


37 thoughts on “Everything you need to know about the dichotomy of control

  1. katymarblog

    I found this to be a very helpful visual explanation of the dichotomy of control. I had trouble with the first vector diagram because it showed the outcome as 50-50 externals vs internals. I wish! Then you went on to show the range of outcomes with further explanation and took the wind out of my objection. I should have known you wouldn’t leave us with anything less than a completely thought out explanation. Thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Robin Pennie

    Many thanks for this, Massimo. I didn’t do any vector analysis at school that I can remember, so I don’t have problems with your using it, and I think that it is very helpful.

    There is a point I would like to add, but it would need a different type of diagram. As a practising viola player, my experience is that the relationship between my efforts and any improvement I make does not follow a flat line and then hit a brick wall, but follow the path of an asymptotic curve rising towards 100% – but never getting there.

    The other way of looking at this is diminishing returns, as every hour spent produces a diminishing improvement. Eventually you have to decide when the improvement gains are negligible, and move on to the next problem.


  3. Fred Tully

    Epictetus make an assumption that we have control of our desires which is wrong. We only have control of some of our desires, not all. Some are chemical from the body. Consider eating. Control of desire would imply that all those obese people want to be obese. Not true, they are unable to moderate the desire to eat, hence suffer from an desire, which they are unable to control.


  4. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: This is the best explanation I’ve seen so far of the dichotomy.

    Still, whether the ancient Stoics would have agreed or not, I wonder if a mere straight line (a.k.a. a continuum) between the extremes of complete control and no control is not an equally valid way to characterize the world we experience.

    After all, I can easily accept that “external” phenomena – like world events – are relatively out of my control and therefore lie as points on the line, very close to the “no control” extreme – but in everyday life it doesn’t always feel like I am in complete control of my “opinion, motivation, desire, aversion” – that’s how automatically these phenomena bubble up from the unconscious: say, as deeply ingrained habits or instincts.

    So, while these latter “internal” points would indeed lie more closely to the opposite extreme of “complete control”, such relative proximity can overlook how difficult it is to effect internal change: thus, the reason for Stoic guidance and practice, if not also clinical therapy.

    Agree or disagree? or somewhere in the middle? 😉


  5. Alan Rutkowski

    It occurs to me that what is in our power is not limited only by externals but also by internals such as brain chemistry. The opinion, motivation, and desire of someone who is subject to clinical depression, for example, are not completely in his or her power.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Massimo Post author


    You are of course right about practicing the viola (or any other instrument). But the choice to practice is entirely yours. It is the outcome (how much better are you going to become?) that falls outside of your control (it depends in part on your dexterity, for instance, which is influenced by your genes, which are not under your control). In that sense, it is analogous to the proficiency of the tennis player, or the archer.

    Incidentally, you might appreciate this passage from Epictetus:

    “Take a lyre player: he’s relaxed when he performs alone, but put him in front of an audience, and it’s a different story, no matter how beautiful his voice or how well he plays the instrument. Why? Because he not only wants to perform well, he wants to be well received – and the latter lies outside his control.” (Discourses II, 13.2)


    “in everyday life it doesn’t always feel like I am in complete control of my “opinion, motivation, desire, aversion” – that’s how automatically these phenomena bubble up from the unconscious: say, as deeply ingrained habits or instincts.”

    Correct, but the Stoics knew about this. That’s why they clearly state that you are not in charge of your “impressions,” that is, of your first response to things, or your inner feelings. But once you have had time to reflect on them (to give or withdraw “assent”) then you are as responsible as you can reasonably be of anything.


    “The opinion, motivation, and desire of someone who is subject to clinical depression, for example, are not completely in his or her power.”

    Yes, but same response as to Jason above.


  7. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: Perhaps my problem is with the semantics of the Epictetus quote above. If “opinion, motivation, desire, aversion” qualify as “impressions”, as your response suggests, then they are not so much “within our power”, as the quote suggests, as our “assent” to them is – and even then I suppose it depends on the potency of the impressions.

    To borrow Alan’s example, those who suffer from major depression may find that withdrawing assent to their “inner feelings” achieves little or nothing without the help of antidepressant medication, although I suppose you could argue that the desire & motivation to seek psychiatric help counts towards assent-withdrawal in that case.


  8. Massimo Post author


    Right, forgot to address Alan’s example of someone suffering from major depression. Even though there are several instances — some detailed in my book, others over at the Modern Stoicism blog — of people suffering from a variety of mental illnesses still benefiting from Stoicism, sometimes I feel people tend to raise the bar unreasonably high. It’s a philosophy of life, not a silver bullet. As my CUNY colleague Lou Marinoff says in the intro to his Plato, Not Prozac!, sometimes one does indeed need Prozac (or other medicine) to bring one’s brain back to a quasi-normal level of activity. But then one still has to deal with both everyday and existential problems. That’s where the philosophy helps.

    Concerning what Epictetus meant, the list under “is up to us” refers to after-reflection impressions, not to the impressions themselves. Modern cognitive science does back up Epictetus’ intuition, as I discussed here: http://tinyurl.com/mceretp

    Liked by 2 people

  9. jimjamshazam


    When I first read Bill Irvine’s take on the trichotomy of control, it seemed like a useful way of interpreting the stoic sentiment so as to avoid the obvious objection “what about things that are partly under our control”? If we take Irvine’s advice seriously, we are in fact assigning things into two categories – by internalizing our goals, we are making sure that the only things with which we’re concerned are those actually under our control, and all else is external. So the goal of the dichotomy is realized, whether we distinguish between things that are entirely out of our control and things that are only partly so, or not.

    You didn’t link to the actual discussion with Don Robertson, and I haven’t seen you elaborate much on what makes the distinction so important, though I may have missed that discussion elsewhere. My impression is, if Mr. Irvine’s trichotomy makes for a sensible response to an objection to the classical dichotomy, and in practice preserves the functional dichotomy and concern for internals sought after by the ancients, then what’s wrong with that?

    Both you and Mr. Robinson seem to think that making that distinction is incompatible with the original intent of the ancients, but to my novice eyes, Irvine’s position still seems perfectly reasonable and compatible with Epictetus’ original intent. Could you elaborate on why the trichotomy “eviscerates the Stoic concept”, or why a statement like “there are things over which we have partial control, though we should be careful to internalize our goals when dealing with such things [here I am paraphrasing]” is a more banal or self-evident conclusion than “There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power”? They both seem to be eminently reasonable, as I see it.


  10. Alejandro Villarreal

    If I might add something to your explanation, which I believe is implied in the model you propose but might be worth making explicit: any possible outcome for anything that could happen, lies somewhere in the plane created by those 2 vectors. A Stoic would then concern himself mostly with the outcomes that lie close to the horizontal axis (over which he can exert enough action/effort to make it so external factors don’t influence the outcome as much), and practice equanimity towards the ones closer to the vertical axis, correct? I think I’d also rename the axes to “effect of things I can’t control” (vertical) and “effect of things I can control” (horizontal).


  11. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: Thanks for the link, reminding me of your previous address to the topic of feelings & emotions as they relate to Stoicism.

    On a related note, I now recall reading that it’s actually quite common for people to report living with chronic pain (e.g. as many as 55%, according to this epidemiological study).

    That said, I get that chronic pain – as a pre-reflective state – may not make the Stoic cut for “things under our control”, yet it also would come as no surprise to me if many of these folks find Stoic practice unsatisfying, given how intertwined the subjective phenomena of feelings, emotions, and thoughts actually are in everyday experience and given the limitations of rational reflection on bodily states such as these.

    That’s not to say that medication (especially destructive self-medication) is necessarily a wise choice, though I wonder if a life with chronic pain doesn’t create a natural bias towards more hedonistic philosophies, like those of Epicurus or Aristippus – particularly if Stoics fail to address their conditions as everyday (if not an existential) problems.


  12. Massimo Post author


    The problem with Irvine’s interpretation is that it can be read in two ways: either it is a dramatic departure from Epictetus (turning a dichotomy into a trichotomy), or it is a call for the internalization of goals.

    If the former, that destroys the Stoic insight, because it turns a sharp yes/no (is it up to me?) into a continuum.

    If the latter, then there is nothing new: Cicero and Epictetus already did that.

    I believe the correct answer is the second one, nothing new.


    Yes, you are correct in your additional interpretation, thanks!


    Again, I feel this is asking too much of Stoicism. It’s a philosophy of life, not a medicine cabinet. I fail to see how turning to Epicureanism, for instance, will make chronic pain go away, or more manageable. The Stoic is a human being attempting to do his best under whatever circumstances, but sometimes the circumstances are overwhelming and there isn’t much to be done, other than accept them with as much equanimity as one can muster. Hence the dichotomy of control.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: Of course, no philosophy of life can by itself relieve chronic pain, though philosophers can respond more or less adequately to that human condition.

    So, by analogy to Eastern philosophy, Buddhism puts suffering (and its cessation) at its front and center, which right away seems a more adequate description of the reality experienced everyday by chronic pain sufferers (a demographic that might actually be a majority of the population) than I what I see here and now in Stoicism.

    Back to the West, I alluded to Epicureans and Cyrenaics because, if I were a chronic pain sufferer, then I might find more encouragement from their sources in my efforts to pursue relief than I find from Stoic sources (including modern ones, like yourself). Whether the result is actual relief or not is beside the point, as the old saying goes: hope springs eternal.


  14. Massimo Post author


    Well, we may have to agree to disagree, as they say, on this one. But it’s interesting you bring up the Buddhist approach, which in my understanding is much closer to the Stoic take than to either the Epicurean or the Cyrenaic.


  15. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: Fair enough, but on a more personal note: as a practitioner I’ve invested the most time & energy into Buddhism and Stoicism and I agree with your friend Greg Lopez when he says that Buddhists in practice pay more attention to “phenomenological experience” and Stoics more to “abstract concepts” (source).

    So, while I certainly wouldn’t characterize Buddhism as “hedonistic” in the Western sense, I would say that it takes a “full-bodied” approach to the problem of suffering, which (again) is a core topic in Buddhist ethics and soteriology.


  16. Massimo Post author


    Yes, that’s Greg’s take. It may come down to personal preference. Whenever I have tried to get closer to Buddhism I found it alien and rather impenetrable, while Stoicism spoke to me loudly and clearly.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from recent trends in psychotherapy, which combine critical thinking with mindfulness-based interventions to form the “third wave” of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). Given that the former was inspired by Stoicism and the latter by Buddhism, the choice of one philosophy vs. another may not be so stark after all, particularly at the pragmatic “meta” level that most interests me.


  18. Massimo Post author


    Going pragmatic is perfectly fine, of course. But I lean toward coherent philosophies, rather than eclecticism. So for me it’s either Buddhism or Stoicism, not a combination. And between the two, as I said, Stoicism speaks far more loudly to me.


  19. Massimo Post author


    Wow, that’s a whole separate column right there!

    I would begin by questioning why did you merry such a different person from yourself in the first place. Getting pregnant is a serious thing, obviously, but she had no legal rights to deny you seeing the children, regardless of what she might have thought.

    At any rate, now that your children, I gather, have grown up, why exactly do you stay? Seems, from what you describe (which, of course, is just one side of the story), the room has gotten far too smoky for your taste.

    You mention tight finances, but then you have to ask yourself if that’s so important to endure the sort of misery you describe. As I said in the OP, I don’t think we have an absolute duty to others, that is, duties are not unconditional. So the question for you is to reflect on whether the conditions are such that you can absolve yourself from your role as husband (though not from the one as father).

    I’d be curious to hear other people’s comments as well.


  20. Marc Vlecken

    Thank you for this very clear and enlightening explanation. I’m rather new to stoicism (your book is one of the first I read about the topic). It’s interesting to notice the similarities between stoicism and Eastern religions (which I have read about – and practiced – much longer). Usually one mentions Buddhism in that case, but I think the similarities with (traditional!) (advaita) Vedanta (a branch of Hinduism) is at least as striking. Especially with regard to this issue of control/no-control. In Vedanta, it is said that we have to offer all our actions to ‘the field’ of existence (or Ishvara, Brahma, God – which all amounts to the same), without being attached to the result of these actions. One accepts whatever the outcome is. This attitude is called ‘karma yoga’.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Massimo Post author


    See my link in a previous post for why modern cognitive science actually supports Epictetus’ view. We are not in charge of our instinctual desires, but we are in charge of what we do about them. The causes of obesity are complex and little understood, but as someone who has himself struggled with weight issues all his life, I can tell you that your mental attitude very much changes things on the ground, unless someone is suffering from a metabolic dysfunction, in which case medical help is needed. (Stoicism is a philosophy, not a medical therapy.)


  22. jcasey12

    Hi Massimo,

    Great post. I’m curious about one thing, but I fear it might be a silly question. Here goes.

    The effectiveness of the Dichotomy of Control relies on our knowing which things we can control and which things we can’t. There seem to be some things, however, which we may or may not be able to control. Someone above mentioned depression. We might enlarge that to include many of our mental states. Even our opinions, on most tellings, are involuntary to some significant degree. If I’m uncertain as to whether I can control them, then, doesn’t this put uncertainty at the heart of the DoC? Do I have to accept the uncertainty as beyond my control? What would it mean, in that case, to accept uncertainty?




  23. Massimo Post author


    “There seem to be some things, however, which we may or may not be able to control. Someone above mentioned depression”

    Again, Stoicism is a philosophy, not medicine. Yes, one has to have a reasonably functioning mind in order to use it properly. If one is seriously depressed one needs medical help first and foremost, and only later she can turn to philosophy for help with everyday life.

    “Even our opinions, on most tellings, are involuntary to some significant degree”

    Our impressions are, that is, our raw opinions, not yet subjected to reason’s scrutiny. But Epictetus was aware of that. That’s why it takes practice to develop our sense of prohairesis, the ability to arrive at good judgments.

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: I find that some elements of Buddhism sit rather well with some elements of Stoicism. Where they contradict one another, I question which one speaks more loudly to me and then discard the other.

    Just because an approach is eclectic and pragmatic, doesn’t mean that it can’t also be coherent.


  25. Massimo Post author


    Coherence is more difficult when mixing approaches, especially as culturally divergent as Stoicism and Buddhism. But yes, it can be done, I guess.


  26. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: Agreed, it can be difficult, especially for a busy lay practitioner like myself.

    Still, as 21st-Century minds, I take it that we both have discarded a lot of ancient content already (e.g. ancient metaphysics), as well as taken on board a lot of content that the ancient thinkers could hardly have imagined (not just scientific knowledge, but also cultural values).

    So I reckon that our situation limits the areas of conflict considerably, where we’re mostly talking about variant yet overlapping models of ethics, as well as “spiritual exercises” (a term you’ve used before, if I recall correctly) that can be mixed and matched without too much difficulty.

    At least that’s been my experience, so far (having started with Buddhism roughly five years ago and then Stoicism two or so years ago).


  27. Massimo Post author


    It’s not just about variant but overlapping models of ethics, as you put it. The general worldview is different, which means the very way one structures one’s life and chooses one’s priorities is different. For instance, the Stoics did not believe the self to be an illusion. On the contrary, in Hiercles’ circles it’s straight at the center, and it is what originates the process of oikeiosis. From what I understand, a Buddhist seems things fundamentally differently in that respect.


  28. Jason Malfatto

    Massimo: If one adopts rigid, narrow, and oversimplified views of Buddhism and Stoicism, then I agree that it’s much more difficult to find common ground between them. But my experience of both traditions has been way more complicated than that.

    Since you mentioned the self, I recommend Doug Smith’s Secular Buddhist take here. Of particular interest to this conversation: “It’s a common mistake to claim that the Buddha believed in ‘no self’ in the sense that there are no persons, no individuals. In fact, he argued for a view of ‘not-self’, that is, that the self is not identifiable with any of the objects of experience”, while “a Secular Buddhist view of the self is actually somewhat thinner than the Buddha’s own.”

    That said, the pragmatic approach that I take to these schools is way too selective and minimalist to be bothered by a “competing worldviews” problem. You might even say that I begin from a typical 21st-century secular humanist worldview and then seek ways to enhance that with ideas picked from these (and other) schools of thought & practice. Again, where I find a conflict between them, I pick the teaching that speaks more loudly to me and put the others back on the shelf, so to speak.


Comments are closed.